Filicide, the term assigned to the act of a child homicide by a parent, is the most common type of homicide among children. When parents kill their child, mental health issues are often thought to play a role. However, research exploring the relationship between mental illness and filicide is limited. To better understand which parents are at risk for perpetrating filicide, and what mental health issues increase that risk, Sandra M. Flynn of the Centre for Mental Health and Risk at the University of Manchester in the UK led a study examining over ten years of filicide and filicide-suicide data from England. She looked at whether or not biological parents or stepparents were more likely to murder their children, and what mental health issues, treated and untreated, increased the risk of filicide. Flynn also examined age and gender as contributing factors.
She found that among the 297 filicide cases from 1997 to 2006 that she studied, 66% were committed by fathers, even though the mothers had a much higher rate of mental illness. In fact, nearly 66% of the mothers had a history of psychological illness, compared to only 27% of the fathers. Further, symptom presence was a strong indicator as the results of this study revealed that over half of the mothers who committed filicide had symptoms at the time and most often, those symptoms were related to mood disorders. Surprisingly, although psychosis, schizophrenia, and other conditions that cause delusions have been previously shown to be high risk factors for filicide, they were only reported in 17% of the mothers in this study. Flynn also found that only one in five filicide perpetrators had received any mental health care services, and only 12% had been under professional care in the year prior to the filicide.
Other factors that increased the likelihood of filicide included young maternal age, multiple children, and age of child. Specifically, women who were under 27 were more likely to commit filicide, and the majority of the children victims were infants. The most vulnerable age for victimhood was prior to age 5, with risk of death to children decreasing dramatically with each subsequent birthday. Socioeconomic status and marital status were evaluated, but Flynn found that these posed higher risks for maternal mental health issues in general than for the act of filicide itself. In other words, single young mothers with few economic means may be more vulnerable to psychological difficulties that do not lead to filicide. For males, who represented the majority of perpetrators, prior violent behavior, homicide, and substance use were predictive of filicide. Flynn said, “Future research on filicide should study these acts in the context of child abuse and domestic violence to support the development of effective interventions.”
Flynn, S.M., Shaw, J.J., and Abel, K.M. (2013). Filicide: Mental illness in those who kill their children. PLoS ONE 8(4): e58981. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058981
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